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Keynote speaker at economic forecast event lauds Clark County’s recovery

By , Columbian Editor
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Callie Christensen, co-CEO of Slumberkins, talks about the challenges facing her business this year during the annual Economic Forecast Breakfast at the Hilton Vancouver Washington. Other panelists were Esther Liu of LSW Architects and Scott Bailey of the state Employment Security Department.
Callie Christensen, co-CEO of Slumberkins, talks about the challenges facing her business this year during the annual Economic Forecast Breakfast at the Hilton Vancouver Washington. Other panelists were Esther Liu of LSW Architects and Scott Bailey of the state Employment Security Department. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Gas prices are too high. Housing is in short supply. Consumer confidence is falling.

But the most severe economic disruptions may already be behind us, although there is a chance of a mild recession late next year, says Windermere Real Estate’s chief economist.

Matthew Gardner shared these and other insights Thursday with a crowd of more than 350 attending the 36th annual Columbian Economic Forecast Breakfast, presented by Riverview Community Bank.

Gardner, who is part of the University of Washington’s Center for Real Estate Research, said a lot of what happens next will depend on the deftness of the Federal Reserve Bank as it attempts to cool inflation to 2 percent or less.

Unfortunately, “Soft landings are not good for the Fed,” Gardner said, adding that recent interest rate hikes to cool the economy really should have happened six months ago.

As a result, “it’s certainly possible, not guaranteed, we’ll see a slowdown” by the second half of 2023, he said, adding that he expects any downturn to be “very modest.”

In the meantime, consumers are still dealing with high gas prices and other vexations, even as wages are growing and jobs are abundant. Nationwide, there are 5.5 million more job openings than there are unemployed workers, after the pandemic convinced older baby boomers to retire and millennials to have “an early midlife crisis.”

This worker shortage has forced employers to raise wages, particularly for low-skill occupations, which in turn sparks inflation. But Gardner doesn’t forecast a “stagflation” malaise like the late 1970s to early 1980s, when prices rose as the economy stalled. For one thing, he said, the end of pandemic-related stimulus payments and child tax care credits should put the economy on a more sustainable footing.

He also foresees an end to rapidly rising gas prices, although the uncertainty of the Russia-Ukraine war is a wild card.

Local economy prospers

If the U.S. economy is a workhorse, the local economy is a racehorse. Clark County is doing better than almost anywhere, Gardner said, and the statistics show it just as much as all the construction cranes in downtown Vancouver.

“You’ve done remarkably well,” he said, noting that Clark County had the most newcomers in the state last year. Many are coming from California and from the Oregon side of the Columbia River, and “they’re bringing money and spending it.”

In part, that’s why real estate prices remain on the rise. Even though buying a first home seems almost impossible for local millennials, to buyers paying San Francisco Bay-area prices, houses here are cheap.

Building enough housing is a stubborn problem for Clark County. Land is scarce, and thus expensive. Materials are costly, and construction wages are higher if you can even find skilled workers. So builders are concentrating on the high end of the market, where they can satisfy those out-of-state buyers and make a decent profit. “That’s what you need to fix,” he said, by encouraging construction of “missing middle” housing such as duplexes.

Rising mortgage rates make it even tougher for locals. One glimmer of hope: Gardner thinks rates are near their peak, though he also doesn’t see a return to the days of mortgages in the 2-3 percent range.

“In my opinion, that is not a bad thing,” he said, as it may help to cool a “massively imbalanced” housing market. He sees growth in housing prices slowing after tripling since 2012, including a 20 percent gain last year.

“It’s getting expensive around here, unless you are a Californian,” he said.

Expert panel

Gardner’s presentation was followed by a panel discussion. Callie Christensen, co-CEO of Slumberkins, discussed how the pandemic and supply chain disruptions were affecting her company, which provides products such as plush toys and books to support young children’s social and emotional learning.

Although the company found a path to growth during the pandemic, it’s harder to get products. What was a six-month delay between order and delivery is now more like 13-14 months, she said, and the company has had to diversify its suppliers and transportation, leading to a need for more quality control.

Esther Liu, president of LSW Architects, discussed how buildings, parks and other components of the “built environment” can lend a sense of place to a community. As Vancouver grows and develops, it will be important to embrace adaptive reuse — converting older structures to new uses — and open space to preserve livability and address inequities.

“I want to say, design matters,” she said.

Scott Bailey, regional economist for the state Employment Security Department, also talked about inequity. When COVID-19 hit, minority groups and less-educated workers lost more jobs proportionately than college-educated whites. The labor market has largely recovered, with sectors such as hospitality actually exceeding pre-pandemic employment, but wage gaps persist between men and women, and white workers and people of color, he said.

Additional sponsors of this year’s economic forecast event included Gravitate, TMG Property Management Services, WSP U.S.A., PeaceHealth, Biggs Insurance Services, MacKay Sposito, the Columbia River Economic Development Council, the Greater Vancouver Chamber of Commerce and Identity Clark County.